Margaret Atwood, among the most talented novelists of my lifetime, moderates a discussion on Ed Wilson’s Anthill:
Wilson draws explicit parallels between ant colonies and human civilizations. Each arises, builds itself up, fights off competitors, flourishes, goes into decline, and eventually perishes, overwhelmed by stronger invaders. Is this parallel fully merited?
Is there an implication that human society on earth has now become a Supercolony, devouring everything in its path and with no check to its growth? If so, is it in danger of eating itself out of existence?
…and it’s about ants, of course:
The Trailhead Queen was dead. At first, there was no overt sign that her long life was ending: no fever, no spasms, no farewells. She simply sat on the floor of the royal chamber and died. As in life, her body was prone and immobile, her legs and antennae relaxed. Her stillness alone failed to give warning to her daughters that a catastrophe had occurred for all of them. She lay there, in fact, as though nothing had happened. She had become a perfect statue of herself. While humans and other vertebrates have an internal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone. Hence the workers were at first unaware of their mother’s death. Her quietude said nothing, and the odors of her life, still rising from her, signalled, I remain among you. She smelled alive.
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/01/25/100125fi_fiction_wilson#ixzz0dMMUhcTj
From the NOVA episode “Lord of the Ants”
Sorry to keep harping on Hoelldobler & Wilson’s The Superorganism. But Wilson’s section on ant evolution is so bad, so out of touch with the state of the field that I can’t help but to rant.
Both Chapter 7 (The Rise of the Ants) and Chapter 8 (Ponerine Ants: The Great Radiation) are predicated on the argument that certain groups of poneromorph ants form a clade. In defense of this assumption, Wilson writes (page 322):
…Barry Bolton has recently split Ponerinae into seven subfamilies (Ponerinae, Amblyponinae, Ectatomminae, Heteroponerinae, Paraponerinae, Proceratiinae, and the fossil Brownimyrmicinae). Still, there is no reason as yet to doubt that the assemblage as a whole represents a diversification from a single Mesozoic ancestor.
No reason, that is, except that it runs contrary to the findings of every single relevant phylogenetic study* in the past decade. In particular, there is simply no way to make (Ectatomminae + Heteroponerinae) monophyletic with the remaining poneromorphs given the existing data, and even the monophyly of the remaining groups is far from certain. Wilson stakes his claim even further in the mud on the next page:
This, then, is the ponerine paradox: a group that is globally successful yet socially primitive. The puzzle might be partially resolved if the more advanced subfamilies can be shown to be derived from a ponerine stock…but even if such proves to be the case (contrary to the opinion of systematists who consider the ponerines basically monophyletic), there likely remain diverse modern subgroups…
Who are the systematists who consider these poneromorphs to be monophyletic? None that I’m aware of. Wilson is the last one left, ossified in the same perspective he had in the 1960s. What’s even odder is that he reproduces the Moreau et al phylogeny on page 316, and it contradicts nearly all of his phylogenetic statements in the text. Did he read the figures in his own book?
As a consequence, the whole section of The Superorganism devoted to the evolutionary history of ants is muddy, incoherent, and entirely at odds with the increasingly clear picture emerging from modern studies of ant relationships.
*Astruc et al 2004, Moreau et al 2006, Brady et al 2006, Ouellete et al 2006, Rabeling et al 2008.
Who is supposed to read The Superorganism?
I can’t really tell. While I’m enjoying Holldobler & Wilson’s latest tome, I am perplexed at the book’s target audience. The text switches between broadly anthropomorphic prose clearly aimed for a general audience and obtuse jargon digestible only by the experienced biologist.
I get the feeling that the authors- at least one of them, anyway- desired a technical book more along the lines of Bourke & Franks, while the marketing department at Harvard University Press wished to trade on the authors’ name recognition with a glossy coffee-table production. The tug-of-war behind the scenes must have been impressive, and the effect is surreal. It’s a bit like hanging your automobile’s operating manual in a gilded frame over the mantle. The result is not unpleasant, mind you, but I can’t help to think the authors missed an opportunity to produce either a comprehensive professional review or an engaging popular work instead of compromising in the middle.
In the comments, Eric Eaton makes an observation:
I’m left wondering (just a little) why Alex has such a beef with Dr. Wilson. This is not the first post taking a jab at Wilson, so while Alex makes an excellent point, I’m also sensing some underlying issues here….
Eric is right there’s an issue. It is one many myrmecologists, especially systematists, have been tip-toeing around for a while now.
The short version is that Wilson is no longer at the leading edge of myrmecology. As he has fallen out of step with the practicing research community, his public ant commentary is increasingly at odds with the situation on the ground, as it were. This predictably puts the current generation of myrmecologists in a bit of an uncomfortable position with respect to the community’s most public representative. Hence the underlying issues.
The longer version is this. Continue reading →
From an interview with E. O. Wilson:
[Q:]Are ants better at anything than humans?
[Wilson:] Human beings have not yet made an accommodation with the rest of life—whereas ants, whose history dates back more than 100 million years, have achieved that balance, mostly by specializing among the 14,000 known species in terms of where they live, what they eat, and how they relate to other species. Each, for the most part, has acquired a balance with prey, food, and space, halting population growth before it crashes. Ants have reached some degree of sustainability, while humans have not. We’re not going to last 100 years if we don’t start settling down.
I think the available evidence suggests the opposite. Ants achieved their current dominance not through finding some magical ecological balance but by driving their competition to extinction.
Consider the ground beetles. They are an older group of insects, occupying a similar soil/ground predatory role to many ant species. But this ancient group of beetles is globally most abundant now only around the periphery of the ants, filling in the cracks that are too cold, too dark, too extreme for the Formicidae. Ground beetles abound in boreal forests, along ice fields, in alpine meadows above the tree line. What’s more, those that persist in the ant-rich tropics have a more potent defensive chemistry, as if those species that didn’t retreat in the face of the ant radiation stocked up on guns and ammunition. We don’t know for certain, but the bits of evidence taken together it’s likely that the rise of the ants had a pretty significant effect on the ground beetles. This nature is more Red in Tooth and Claw than singing Kumbaya in global harmony.
I understand Wilson’s angle- that humans are destroying the ecological systems that sustain us- but surely that same point can be made without resting it on feel-good pablum without any empirical grounding.
My copy arrived from Amazon the day before yesterday. I’ve not given it anything more than a couple cursory thumb-throughs, but I’m immediately left with the impression of schizophrenia.
The bits on social organization, behavior, communication, and levels of selection- mostly Bert Hoelldobler’s sections- seem an engaging and modern review, while the chapters dealing with ant history and evolution- Wilson’s area- are… How do I say this diplomatically? Rubbish.
The past ten years have brought immeasurable advances in our knowledge of ant evolution, both in breadth and detail. Inexplicably, Wilson fails to recognize it. Really. He cites some recent paleontology but next to none of the large and growing body of genetic work. He reproduces the phylogeny of Moreau et al (2006), but the accompanying text reveals that he does not understand its meaning, nor that it can and is being used to connect the vast body of previously disparate natural history tidbits that Wilson himself relates throughout the book. At best, Wilson’s section is charming but irrelevant, at worst it will serve to further confuse a field that is already finding clarity independent of Wilson. We could use a comprehensive reference detailing the great evolutionary story of the ants, but at first glance this isn’t it.
Oh, and the production value is high. It’s a weighty, glossy, attractive book. Lots of illustrations. The sort of thing that on a coffee table is sure to impress, even if you don’t plan on opening it.
I’ll post more detailed comments as I give it a more proper reading.
I’ve just received the following notice about an upcoming NOVA show on the life of biologist/myrmecologist E. O. Wilson:
NOVA is excited to partner with organizations that share our passion for scientific discovery as we spread the word about upcoming shows. On Tuesday, May 20, we invite you to join us for a look at the life and work of renowned Harvard entomologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson. From his groundbreaking discoveries about ant culture to his controversial take on the biological basis for human behavior, NOVA presents a sweeping chronicle of Wilson’s extraordinary career. In six decades exploring treasure-troves of biodiversity across the globe, Wilson has discovered more than 300 new species and emerged as an outspoken environmental advocate, fighting to preserve the astonishing diversity of our planet for the next generation of naturalists.
“Lord of the Ants” will premiere Tuesday, May 20 at 8 pm ET/PT on most PBS stations. To check your local listings, please visit: PBS – Nova schedule
You can also learn more about Wilson’s career–and get a close-up look at some of the planet’s wildest ant varieties– here.
We hope you will help us get the word out about “Lord of the Ants” by passing the attached e-card on to friends and colleagues who might want to tune in. Thank you!
Best wishes, NOVA